Signs and Symptoms of the Most Common Behavior Disorders in Children

Teen sits on the edge of a bed, listening to their parent

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It is normal for children to go through defiant phases as they grow. Part of gaining mastery and asserting their independence involves challenging rules and boundaries. 

Behavior disorders, on the other hand, are more than just occasional temper tantrums or defiant behavior. A child with a diagnosable behavior disorder experiences behavior problems that are severe enough to interfere with school performance or relationships with friends and family.

Behavior disorders can worsen over time without treatment, so it’s important to get a child evaluated by a qualified mental health professional if you suspect a behavior disorder.

What Is Behavior Disorder?

When a child's disruptive behaviors lasts for six months or longer and it affects their school, home, and social life, you may want to seek out a diagnosis.

Signs that may indicate a behavior disorder include:

  • Inattention
  • Hyperactivity
  • Impulsivity
  • Defiance
  • Drug use
  • Delinquency

Diagnosis involves an evaluation to assess symptoms, your child’s medical history and background. A clinician will collect information from both you and your child. They may also ask to speak to your child’s teachers and other caregivers to get the most well-rounded picture of how your child behaves in a variety of settings. 

Only a qualified professional—like a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, nurse practitioner, or pediatrician—can diagnose a behavior disorder.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common behavior disorders. Although ADHD is often thought of as a childhood disorder, it is not something a person outgrows. 

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects 11% of school-aged kids. For 75% of people with ADHD, symptoms persist into adulthood. Symptoms can range from mild to severe. 

Types of ADHD

  • Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive
  • Predominantly inattentive
  • Combined hyperactive-impulsive and inattentive

Symptoms

Symptoms of ADHD vary depending on whether your child’s ADHD is mild or severe and which type of ADHD your child has. Symptoms can present differently at different ages. A young child, for instance, may have trouble with following directions and fidgeting, while a teen may struggle more with setting priorities and getting sidetracked.

Symptoms of inattentive ADHD:

  • Makes careless mistakes 
  • Difficulty focusing 
  • Difficulty following instructions 
  • Disorganization 
  • Avoids tasks that require mental effort 
  • Frequently loses things
  • Easily distracted
  • Forgetful

Symptoms of impulsive/hyperactive ADHD:

  • Talking incessantly
  • Inability to sit still
  • Trouble participating in quiet activities
  • Impatience
  • Blurting out answers or saying inappropriate comments
  • Doing things without considering the consequences

Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosis of ADHD is crucial. Without proper supports and treatment, kids can struggle academically, socially, and emotionally. To diagnose ADHD, a clinician will do a comprehensive evaluation, including a thorough medical history and a history of your child’s behavior. Perspectives from parents, teachers, and your child are essential. 

A clinician can offer a diagnosis for children as young as age 4. During the evaluation, they will look for whether your child’s symptoms are primarily inattentive, impulsive, hyperactive, or a combination. This information will guide a treatment plan

Treatment for ADHD is often multi-faceted and may include some combination of medication, behavioral therapy, parent training, and academic modifications and supports (504 plans, IEPs, tutoring, etc.).

Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) is characterized by persistent defiance and disobedience toward authority figures. Oppositional behavior is a normal developmental stage in the toddler and adolescent years. But when that behavior becomes hostile, frequent, and extreme when compared to others of the same age, it may indicate ODD.

Symptoms

Symptoms of Oppositional Defiant Disorder often present most profoundly at home and at school. Between 1% and 16% of school-aged children and adolescents have ODD.

Symptoms of ODD include:

  • Frequent temper tantrums
  • Frequent arguing with adults
  • Deliberately annoying other people
  • Often questioning and refusing to follow rules
  • Blaming others for mistakes
  • Becoming easily angered
  • Behaving in a vindictive manner

Diagnosis and Treatment

ODD often coexists with other behavior disorders. Without intervention, ODD may develop into conduct disorder, so early diagnosis and treatment is important. To diagnose ODD a clinician will complete a comprehensive evaluation, during which they will also look for coexisting disorders. 

Parents and caregivers play a key role in treatment. Learning how to parent a child with ODD requires training. In addition, family and individual therapy are often components of treatment. Medications may also be utilized to control symptoms.

Conduct Disorder

Conduct disorder involves a repetitive pattern of violation of other people’s rights or persistent violation of age-appropriate social rules. Kids with conduct disorder are often viewed as “bad” or delinquent, but in fact, they are living with a mental illness. 

Certain things may put a child at an increased risk for developing a conduct disorder. Child abuse or neglect, school failure, and traumatic life experiences are all factors that might contribute to conduct disorder.

Symptoms

Conduct disorder presents as a disregard for rules and behaving in socially unacceptable ways. Kids with conduct disorder often show a lack of empathy and respect for other people.

Signs of conduct disorder include:

  • Physical aggression toward people or animals
  • Destruction of property and vandalism
  • Deceitfulness and lying
  • Stealing
  • Serious violations of rules (i.e. running away, skipping school, breaking curfew)

Children with conduct disorder are frequently suspended from school. They may require police intervention and sometimes, they misuse drugs or alcohol. 

Diagnosis and Treatment

Adolescents with conduct disorder may require intensive interventions, such as in-home supports or even residential placement. A child with conduct disorder mistrusts adults, which complicates treatment. 

Behavior therapy, psychotherapy, academic supports, and medication are all tools used to treat conduct disorder. Early intervention and treatment produces the best outcomes.

Intermittent Explosive Disorder

Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED) is an understudied and undertreated mental illness in youth. It is characterized by recurrent acts of violence and destruction that are out of proportion to the circumstance. It is the only clinical disorder characterized by impulsive aggression.

Symptoms

IED looks just like a temper tantrum. Kids with IED may throw things, get into fights, and exhibit abusive behavior.

Symptoms of IED include:

  • Rage
  • Irritability
  • Racing thoughts
  • High energy
  • Heart palpitations, tightness in the chest
  • Tantrums
  • Arguing and shouting
  • Physical fights
  • Threats of violence
  • Assaults on people or animals
  • Damaging property

Diagnosis and Treatment

A clinician diagnoses IED through a careful evaluation of a child’s medical history, psychiatric history, and by the presence of sustained symptoms that meet specific criteria.

To be diagnosed with IED, a person must exhibit verbal or physical aggression twice a week for three months, or exhibit three episodes of property destruction over the course of 12 months, or exhibit three episodes of assault that resulted in physical injury over the past 12 months.

Treatment for IED usually includes a combination of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Coping techniques like relaxation, learning how to leave stressful situations, and avoiding drugs and alcohol can also help.

Causes

The exact cause of behavior disorders is unknown, but there are some theories about how they could develop. It is possible that learned, developmental, environmental, and genetic factors may play a role.

Kids who have a family history of substance use disorders, personality disorders, and mood disorders are at increased risk for developing behavior disorders.

Treatment

The sooner you can begin treatment for a behavior disorder, the better. If you detect any symptoms of behavior disorders in your child, it is appropriate to seek an evaluation right away.

Treatments vary depending on your child’s diagnosis and the severity of the disorder. Work with your child’s doctor or clinician to develop a plan that everyone can stick to.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is often an essential component for treating behavior disorders. Psychotherapy offers a space to process thoughts and emotions. It also can teach social skills, behavioral skills, and ways to appropriately handle anger. 

CBT can be particularly useful for helping a person learn how to modify their behavior. Family therapy can offer space to work out interpersonal conflicts as well as learn new ways of communicating in a healthy way.

Medication

Medication is a useful treatment tool for many behavior disorders. Medication is often coupled with psychotherapy.

Common medications include:

  • Stimulants, such as Adderall (dextroamphetamine) and Ritalin (methylphenidate)
  • Nonstimulants such as Strattera (atomoxetine) and Intuniv (guanfacine)
  • Antidepressants such as Prozac (fluoxetine), Wellbutrin (bupropion), and Zoloft (sertraline) 
  • Anticonvulsants such as Klonopin (clonazepam) 
  • Tranquilizers such as Valium (diazepam), Xanax (alprazolam), and Ativan (lorazepam)

Parental Education

Parental education is key to treatment success. When a child has a behavior disorder, learning how to communicate effectively, avoid triggers, and manage your child’s outbursts can help to maintain a calm and stable environment.

A Word From Verywell

If you suspect that your child may have a behavior disorder, you may be feeling overwhelmed or responsible. These emotions are understandable. Symptoms of behavior disorders can impact the whole family. If your child has a behavior disorder, remember that it’s not your fault.

Treatment can relieve your child’s symptoms. The sooner your child receives a diagnosis and a treatment plan, the quicker your child can find relief and start feeling successful again. You can show your child that you are there to support them by committing to parent training, family therapy, and helping them get to their appointments.

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14 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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